Local bus riders express frustration with return of bus fares
After a year of free bus trips throughout the state, New Haveners — many of whom do not have access to private vehicles — must now pay for rides.
Megan Vaz, Contributing Photographer
Connecticut buses bore a new message for riders this weekend: “Fares restart April 1.”
After almost one year of free public buses across the state due to a surge in oil prices and record-high costs of living, travelers across the state had to resume paying fares for buses on Saturday. Connecticut legislation to extend free public bus fares stalled as New Haven State Representative Roland Lemar, who co-chairs the state legislature’s transportation committee, argued the state did not have enough funding to pay for the program.
Proponents of extending the state’s free public bus system have argued that the program helped alleviate cost-of-living worries as Connecticut residents have faced inflation of six to eight percent, an average rent increase of roughly 20 percent and stagnating wages. Moreover, local bus riders have expressed frustration over the state’s decision to deprioritize accessibility while managing one of its largest budget reserves in state history.
“Statistically, this also translates to disproportionately punishing poor people, women, young people, seniors, and Black and brown people,” said local bus rider Stasia Brewczynski. “We need authority figures to stop thinking with car-brains and start looking for every opportunity to reward and incentivize people moving without private cars and trucks.”
Now that the fare-free program has expired, most travelers must pay $6.40 for an All-day 2 Zones pass, with prices increasing for each additional zone. Riders may also purchase 31-day passes, which range from $108.80 to $204 based on traveling zone range.
Free public buses “not a priority” for Lemar, state legislative transportation committee
Last week, Lemar told WNHH FM that while he supports the concept of free public buses, he wishes to change the funding mechanism currently used to pay for it.
When the state passed emergency measures to fight against rising oil prices and inflation, which included free bus fares, it utilized money outside of the normal state budgeting process of the general funds, according to Lemar.
“I want the bus service to be free—but I want the general fund to pay for it,” Lemar told WNHH FM.
Lemar argued that the state legislature can fund other initiatives to better encourage people to “ditch their cars” and use public transportation. He cited data that he reviewed during the legislative process to determine priorities for his committee, which he said showed that people “were not making the choice: instead of driving today, I’ll take the bus because it’s free.”
Lemar also added that he heard testimony during the committee process from Connecticut residents who were more worried about the buses running on time and being safe than the cost of the fare itself.
Lemar did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the News about the potential impacts of the reimposition of fares on poorer residents.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker told the News that he hopes to work with state and federal partners to bring the program back in the future, dubbing free public bus fares as a “win-win.”
“I ride the bus all the time, and what I heard time and time again throughout the pilot program is that people love it,” Elicker wrote to the News. “Residents are able to keep more of their hard-earned paychecks in their pockets, it promotes the use of public transportation and reduces the number of cars on our streets, and it makes an already convenient commute even easier, faster and more hassle-free.”
Residents speak of economic hardship caused by bus fares
Brewczynski argued that charging fares will discourage people from using buses altogether, which poses a problem in a city where most residents live in car-free or “car-light” households.
According to the nonprofit Datahaven’s 2023 Community Wellbeing Index for the greater New Haven area, about 34 percent of local adults making under $30,000 per year experience “transportation insecurity” without reliable access to a vehicle. Black and Latino households are far more likely to lack access to a personal vehicle, especially in those without any employed adults.
Some bus riders told the News that they are experiencing homelessness and heavily relied on the fare-free program for access to food, job opportunities and medical appointments.
King Latif Manns, an unhoused person who rode the bus regularly before fares were announced, told the News that he thinks fares will hurt those of lower socioeconomic classes most. Latif Manns has stopped riding the bus since the change.
“I feel they should think about how many people they were helping and how many people suffer at the fact that the buses started faring people,” Latif Manns said. “It’s tax money, but also we the people are the taxpayers.”
Some bus riders also raised concerns over reduced transportation access for those with disabilities. All Connecticut buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts and ramps, and most are able to accommodate mobility devices like walkers.
One homeless rider, who was granted anonymity to protect his privacy, expressed disappointment with the return of fares. He is disabled and uses a walker.
“I’m disabled, I’m homeless,” he said. “I can’t walk to my appointments — we don’t want to pay.”
Senior citizens and those with “qualifying disabilities” are currently eligible for reduced fares, with all-day passes selling for half the normal price.
Kate Chebik, who works at the community center MakeHaven, told the News that the workshop strategically chose to move its space to a downtown location due to its proximity to several bus routes. The move sought to maximize accessibility for all bus users, especially those who are most socioeconomically disadvantaged.
“New Haven had a real opportunity to be a model for public transportation with fare free buses,” Chebik wrote. “It seems logical that removing the cost of the bus makes the bus more accessible for those with limited incomes, and also moves to encourage ridership among all people.”
35 legislators serve on the Connecticut state legislature’s transportation committee.